Sunday, May 17, 2009

Presence, Not Presents: Why We Throw No Gift Parties (& How)

Like many things in life, our no gift kid parties started with a simple decision, an agreement among friends.

Through a hospital-sponsored lactation group, I became close with 4 families who had infants born within a month of Ranger. A few months before their first birthdays, the older sibling of one of the 6 babies had a birthday party. One mom volunteered to organize a group gift for the birthday girl. At the party, we discussed the impending month of 6 birthdays.

Everyone agreed that 5 separate gifts for babies would be overkill as our kids could all anticipate more than enough presents from grandparents alone. Someone posed the question if we'd mind NOT giving gifts among the group. I was filled with relief. My days were still consumed with post-tornado, post-flood repairs and appeals to our insurance company; our nights, if it rained, were filled with basement leak management. Jim and I were exhausted physically and emotionally. The thought of finding 5 thoughtful, personal gifts with our then cash-poor budget made me queasy. My awesome friends all pledged not to give birthday gifts (because one gift makes everyone feel bad).

And we didn't. Which is impressive as we live in a place slightly above the Mason-Dixon line where gifts are a part of the convivial, generous culture. Instead, we found other ways to support and give to our friends. The question "What can we bring?" shifted into the gap that presents previously occupied. Outdoor parties were met with offers for bringing chairs and kids' picnic tables. One torrential evening I drove by the flooded shelter house where 3 families had scheduled an outdoor party for the following day. Within a few hours, I'd secured a couple offers for free use of indoor facilities. The next day, while parts of town were closed by flash flooding, we were eating an indoor picnic. We've all loaned decorations, brought food, and helped with set-up, tear down, and serving. One incredible mom made cakes for all the kids' first birthdays.

The parties rocked. Our kids got to play, relatives of the birthday child got to meet all the kiddos, and tasks tended to be lighter with plenty of good friends as willing helpers. There were gifts from the birthday child's families, but the non-birthday kids generally ignored the present-opening portion of the day.

More people joined the baby group, and we filled them in on the no gift agreement. Party attendance did not obligate anyone to invitation reciprocation or assistance with the event, so new families were free to conduct their own parties as they saw fit.

For the past 3 years different people have thrown parties. Sometimes we just celebrate with cupcakes at playgroup or doughnuts and carousel rides at the mall. Other times there are parties with activities and lunch.

For Ranger's third birthday, we raised the stakes. We threw our first actual party and broke all the expert recommendations by inviting oodles of attendees (over half of which were under 6). As our house is already bursting at the seams with toe-stubbers, this was our invitation:

No Presents, Just Partying.
There was some kerfuffle. We told everyone that the kids would have more fun without presents.

And we meant it. Before Ranger was born we attended a few kid parties where gift opening was part of the entertainment. The birthday kid unwraps an endless pile of gifts while the other kids fidget, envy, or fight over the new toys. The birthday kid is expected to respond appropriately with excitement and gratitude for each gift before it is snatched away and replaced with another package. Depending upon the party's adult leadership, the gifts are then put in protective custody (which tantalizes and torments other kids) or they are handed out for general use while the birthday kid keeps unwrapping (which tantalizes and torments the honoree).

Too many gifts arrive at one time, so a wonderful gift may get little notice. A lot of gifts may be last minute purchases and not particularly well suited for the recipient. The unwrapping provides lots of opportunity for awkward, uncomfortable moments.

It seemed far easier to omit gifts. Grandparents (who are unstoppable in their generosity) could give gifts at a quieter time when Ranger would be more likely to appreciate them. Other relatives were wonderful in helping prepare the meal and assist with the craft. This gave Jim and I much more time to play with Ranger and the other guests.

A few skeptics showed up with gifts, and those few gifts were discreetly set aside and opened after the party. We were sure to write thank you notes for those gifts when we thanked everyone who helped us with the party logistics.

Our party started at 10 AM, with lunch and cake around 11:30, but most people weren't ready to leave. We went back to dancing and activities until 2 PM. That is a long party, especially for kids around 3 years old.

AND NOBODY CRIED until it was time to go home. No joke. Over a dozen wee attendees and no tears. Lots of laughing, lots of dancing, some crafting, some block-building, and a fair amount of running, but no crying.

Many parents told me that they found the no present situation quite pleasant.

I feel like the party is a gift in itself, and a very special one at that. Friends and family gather to celebrate your existence, special foods are served, and everyone wants to have a good time.

When presents are introduced, a birthday can become judged solely on the gifts received. We want Ranger and the Raptor to grow up seeing the incredible wealth they have in the people who love them. We want them to understand that a caring community outweighs material desires.

For weeks Ranger talked about all the people who danced with him.

Attentive readers of this blog know I make a lot of birthday gifts (crowns and banners in particular), so how does that fit with a no-gift practice? I often give the crowns and banners before the actual event, and I usually give them to the parents. (FYI: There's no problem with spontaneous gift giving in our group.) That way the parents can decide if they want to incorporate the banner in the decorations or hang it over the breakfast table. Birthday crowns are sometimes worn all day (on trips to the grocery store, etc.), but more often become a part of the child's daily play. It's always a sweet feeling to see a crowned head round enter the room when visiting friends.

We do also attend gift parties to which we bring gifts (sometimes handmade, sometimes purchased). Our preferences and values are not those of every family, so we don't consider hosting no-gift birthdays a "free pass" to breech normal etiquette.

Now, I'm sure some readers are sharpening up their pixels to give me a list of reasons why this doesn't work in the real world, but it did. It was an advantage that my some of my friends had a pre-existing agreement, but they only comprised a portion (less than half) of the party invitees.

We'll post more about Ranger's 3rd birthday soon (before he turns 4), but the time seemed right for this topic now. Thanks to Thingamababy and Daddy Types for opening this interesting conversation.

What do you think? (I promise not to weep too copiously at any opposition.)


Katie said...

Funny thing, I just sent out invitations (evite, kthx) for the Infanta's first birthday party. Included in the sparse text was the phrase, "gifts admired, but by no means required: all we want is to see your shining faces!" I know some people will bring gifts, especially family members, and that's fine. In my husband's family, gifts for kids are typically given quietly, to be opened later in private, anyway. So for those gifts that we do receive, we'll open them probably later, at home, and not make a fuss with the toddlers. First birthdays are really only a fuss for the adults, anyway - just another big playdate for the kids. :)

the milliner said...

Great post and insight into the no-gift birthday. I've been thinking about this lately as our little guy turns one in a month.

I love the no-gift party in theory and totally agree that it probably causes more trouble than it's worth. But somehow, I just can't bring myself to take this approach with DS just yet.

I must confess I love throwing parties and making things for the party, decorating etc. Just another reason to be creative and at the same time make my little guy feel special.

My parents (well, mostly my Mum) organized the best birthday parties for us and they are all part of my fondest childhood memories. What's interesting is that thinking back, I don't remember anything about the gifts (except that I did get them from my friends & my parents), and I did open them at the party. But my fondest memories are of the cakes my Mum made, the games we played and the special treats/activities - like having a fondue when I was 7 or 8. So, all of this supports what you've concluded about what you want Ranger to get from his birthday celebrations.

We'll try it with gifts this year and see how it goes. We may end up going no gifts if it starts becoming a problem, or the focus. And, I must admit, your post brings me one step closer to having this for the future.

The other option I'm considering for when the little guy is a bit older is having him make something handmade for each of his birthday party guests in honor of his birthday. (I guess this is what loot bags are all about. But it'll have more meaning if the little guy has a hand in putting them together). I think I read some where a long time ago that in some cultures it is customary to GIVE gifts on your birthday, not receive them.

Anyhow, great food for thought!

Anonymous said...

We don't really do gift-less parties, but we do practically kidless parties. I can sense your confusion, so let me explain.

For the first birthday, we invited our friends and those friends who have children were encouraged bring children. At Ben's first birthday there was one other child. For Katie's there will at most be three plus her and her brother.

Ben's second birthday was at Gymboree because Sam was not well that summer and the logistics of a birthday and a sick dog were beyond me. We invited a lot of kids, but not many came. Ben had a blast because he had the place practically to himself. A large number of presents, but they were opened AT HOME. I just wish I had had the forethought to mete them out over many days.

Ben's third birthday had two other children at it, I think. We made the mistake of having him open his presents while they were there. We won't be doing that again this year, but I feel confident that the same two children will be at this party in addition to his sister.

At most of these parties there have been grandparents, godparents, and assorted "other" adults who like our kids.

I figure I have one more year like this. He's starting to get interested in "doing things" like swim lessons and other things that involve other kids, so I imagine he will want to invite some of them, but hopefully not this year :).

Mimi-n-Moe's Mom said...

Great post. You should be a birthday planner for kids. Seriously. Your parties rock!

Liz BK said...

This makes complete sense to me. For my girl Ev's first birthday, we had a picnic at the park. We invited our friends to bring a blanket to sit on, a frisbee or a ball to play with, and expressed a preference for no gifts. We simply don't have room in our little apartment for any more stuff, and Ev gets plenty of fun new toys from grandparents and from the occasional used toy swap with friends. For her 2nd birthday, I might invite people to bring a book, small stuffed toy, or blanket for Thanks for the great post!

adrienne said...

Liz BK: Project Night Night looks awesome, and it's really cool that it's a national project with collection sites in

There's not a collection site near us, but they do serve Indiana shelters. Thanks for the link!

allison said...

For my kiddo's second birthday, we TRIED the no gifts thing. Unfortunately, gifts came. How do you get the idea across, that, no really, no gifts? we put it on the invite, I expressed it to people as I was talking to them..Giftmas was bad enough this year. Voldemort just turned two, and even though i have asked and asked my inlaws to limit the gifts, he managed to open three before he hit total overload and started running around the room shrieking - either because he wanted to play with the toys he had already opened, or because he wanted to open and open and open. We wont be doing that again!

M said...

I love this topic! We recently (well, a year ago) moved from a major metro area to a small island in the south and I am amazed at how much resistance there is in our new area to the "no gifts please" request. I am of the mind that children receive enough (too much sometimes) from the relatives, especially grandparents and the last thing a self-centered toddler/child needs is more "STUFF." Imagine my surprise when we recently received an invite for a no gift party, and I expressed my delight to the birthday boy's mother...turns out they had also just moved from a major metro area. :) Before moving, I had a standard practice of donating to Heifer International in the birthday child's name and including a card stating as much along with the regular bday card. It was never a large donation, just what I would spend on a gift. The card would provide an explanation of the donation and the parents loved it. I've continued that practice down here and some folks (such as my mother in law) give a weird look when they find out I have not brought the "traditional" gift. However, the parents love it - it teaches the children about giving, helping others, etc. I definitely plan on keeping it up.

Nutmeg said...

My son's birthday is 10 days before christmas... I definitely want to have no gift birthdays (and have really taken about half the toys he gets at christmas/birthday and put them away until summer, so he gets some new toys in the rotation later...

We haven't really had a real party yet (we've had two birthdays with just a few attendees, mostly family, each), but next year we'll probably have some playmates from his school/daycare class.

Here's my question, and this reflects my general level of social insecurity and paranoia. If we have a little party for him and request no gifts... will people who have parties for their kids in the subsequent weeks (the three little friends he has at school all have birthdays in the subsequent two months) think I'm judging them because they are getting gifts?

Because I certainly don't begrudge getting the other kid's gifts, I just don't want more stuff, and I also feel very strongly that the celebration is the valuable thing as you mentioned.

kaycie said...

I was so completely overwhelmed by the amount of gifts our then 5 month old got at Christmas (and we've got a VERY small family) that I decided to do the same thing for his birthday this summer.
With one exception - I will ask that people who insist on giving something give us cash for his college fund. Here's hoping!

onna noll said...

This was a great post about the no gift party.

SandyQuilts said...

Great idea. Another thought is giving to needy organizations: canned food for food closets, items for animal shelters, donated clothing and etc.

Unknown said...

This is very refreshing idea on birthday parties! In my case, I plan to celebrate my daughter's 2nd birthday party in one of the charitable institutions that my family oftens. Of course it would mean my daughter won't be receiving gifts of her own but instead will share her blessing with unpriviledge kids.

The Rogers said...

Our family has always done no-gift parties... well, in a way. We began completely no-gift, but like you mentioned, people still felt the need to bring something anyway. So, we started a new tradition when the girls were about school-age. When invitees insisted on bringing gifts, we would ask them to bring some canned goods. Then, within a few days after the party, I drive the girls to the local food pantry to donate their "birthday presents".
Things really do run so much more smoothly without the gifts and the girls feel great that they get to help others who need food more than they need another toy.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, we have always opened gifts at the party, as do many of M's friends, though he has had an equally great time at "no gift" parties. We have also been to "gift exchange" parties, but M STILL wants to pick something special for his friend - so that often turns into a 2-gifter for us.

I have no issue with "no gifts." But I also have no issue with gifts - even for my sometimes greedy little M. He is generous as well...

I haven't seen much grief over gifts (envy, fighting, etc.) except between siblings. We let M chose the gift he is giving and he is usually VERY excited about giving it and watching his friend open it. I think there's a good lesson there too. Yes, he can learn to give graciously to charity as well but there is a particular joy in selecting something special for a friend. He is also learning to give thoughtful gifts.

This could happen with spontaneous gifts as well, but the birthday parties give us a great build up. My kid loves a party.

Gwen said...

I'm all for no presents, grandparents give enough anyway.

The family I just married into gives the birthday child *AND* each sibling a gift on the one child's birthday.

These birthday parties are often filled with whining, crying and jealousy over who got what. It's not really much fun.

I didn't get to have birthday parties as a child and to just have had the opportunity to have friends, family and some cake would have been good enough for me.